News / Toronto

‘Miracle on University Avenue’ thrives, six years after life-saving surgery

Six-year-old Kaito was born with a tumour larger than his head. Though doctors told his parents abortion was the only option, a team of Toronto specialists saved his life.

Kaito Kryvenchuk, 6, was born with a tumour larger than his head. He had a surgery to remove the tumour just after he was born in 2011. Six years later, he's perfectly healthy.

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Kaito Kryvenchuk, 6, was born with a tumour larger than his head. He had a surgery to remove the tumour just after he was born in 2011. Six years later, he's perfectly healthy.

Kaito Kryvenchuk almost didn’t exist.

The idea seems almost inconceivable, watching the bouncy, grinning 6-year-old play catch with staff at the Hospital for Sick Children during a checkup. But that fact is never lost on Kaito’s father, Charles Kryvenchuk.

“How many times did he escape death?” Kryvenchuk said. “He’s had to and he just did ... He just bounces back.”

Kaito was born with a tumour larger than his head. Before he was born doctors told his parents abortion was their only option. But thanks to a team of Toronto specialists — and Kaito’s parents, who sought second and third and fourth opinions — the miracle baby is now a thriving, happy kid.

The family’s story began in 2011, when Kryvenchuk and his wife, Tamami Suzuki, were living in Ottawa. During what was meant to be a routine ultrasound, the obstetrician discovered the tumour, called a cervical teratoma. The noncancerous mass on the side of his neck and head would eventually grow to 0.68 kilograms — a fifth of Kaito’s weight when he was a newborn, large enough to make it impossible for him to breathe.

The obstetrician told the couple Canadian hospitals didn’t handle such births, and to terminate the pregnancy. One in 40,000 to 50,000 babies with tumours like Kaito’s survive, and the cause is unknown.

Suzuki and Kryvenchuk went home devastated. After some discussion the pair decided to give their baby a chance.

“It’s the hardest conversation you’ll ever have,” Kryvenchuk said.

Kryvenchuk started doing his own research and seeking other opinions. Wanting to give their baby a name to have “something to fight for,” he and Suzuki settled on Kaito, which means “strong samurai” in Japanese.

Kryvenchuk eventually spoke to professionals at Boston Children’s Hospital, who told him about a procedure that could allow doctors to deliver babies like Kaito.

Kryvenchuk soon connected with surgeons at Toronto’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, who agreed to do the procedure. A specialized team at Sick Kids, across the street on University Ave., signed on to remove the tumour.

Kaito was born on Aug. 5, 2011.

The mass grew from the side of the baby’s neck, bumping into his ear canal. The Sick Kids medical team worked for six hours to remove it, painstakingly tying off each vein one by one.

Since the Star wrote about Kaito’s first Christmas in 2011 — dubbing him the “miracle on University Avenue,” he’s grown into an energetic Grade 1 student who lives up to his name.

Aside from a scar and nerve damage making him unable to smile or blink on the left side of his face, he’s perfectly healthy.

Munching a slice of pizza in the Sick Kids cafeteria in November, Kaito was soft-spoken but goofy, make-believing his lunch into spaceships whenever his dad’s attention was diverted.

“He’s stubborn, he’s a fast runner, he loves math, he loves games, he loves being competitive,” Kryvenchuk said.

In the past 14 months, Kaito — whose family has since moved to the Vancouver area — returned to Sick Kids for three surgeries aimed to help him use the left side of his face.

In one, doctors placed muscle from the boy’s inner thigh in his face. In the others, the medical team did the same with tendons from Kaito’s lower leg and blood vessels from his arm.

“Within half a day each time, he’s already in the playroom,” Kryvenchuk said.

At a final appointment at Sick Kids in November, Kaito tirelessly dribbled a soccer ball in circles even as his surgeon, Dr. Gregory Borschel, instructed him to rest during his recovery.

“No running around,” Borschel told Kaito, struggling to catch the boy’s attention as he raced across the room. “Just be a couch potato.”

Though Kaito may need other operations to fully animate the left side of his face, Kryvenchuk said the boy will choose if he wants to get them.

“He’s tired of surgeries,” Kryvenchuk said. “He’s experienced pain, lots of it.”

That pain, however, has also given the 6-year-old the ability to empathize deeply with those who are hurting, said Kryvenchuk. Kaito is the first to comfort crying classmates or stand up when someone cuts in line — kindness his parents take pride in.

“He cares about other kids,” Suzuki said.

Still, with cross-country trips for treatment and risk in every operation, the past six years have been far from easy. Kaito’s sister Reina, 8, has been a source of support, as have the rest of their family. Kryvenchuk also found comfort in a Facebook group, “Babies Born With Cervical Teratoma,” where he could seek advice and success stories.

Kryvenchuk said he wants other parents facing the same challenge to know they’re not alone, and there’s hope for their families. After all, he said, just look at Kaito.

“Everything just fell into place.”

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